Cartoonist plans some funny business at Modesto Bee
MODESTO -- With grim economic news, crime and other serious subjects filling the daily paper, it's nice to know that the funnies always are there waiting to give you a smile. Since 1984, with his syndicated single-panel cartoon, "Rubes," Leigh Rubin has been carrying his fair share of the silliness.
"Rubes" appears in more than 400 newspapers worldwide, including The Bee, and Rubin himself will appear in Modesto on Tuesday. It's his second visit to The Bee, and he'll talk about his creative process, answer questions and sign copies of his books. Rubin's fast-paced and fun-filled presentations have gained a reputation for inspiring those who attend to add a little creativity to their own lives.
Before heading our way, Rubin took time to answer 10 questions, on subjects ranging from writer's block to bovine humor.
Q: "Rubes" features a lot of clueless, bone-headed, not-exactly-the-sharpest-tool-in-the- shed characters. What's your favorite technique for drawing really dumb-looking people?
A: Besides my Mars Lumograph 3B pencil, kneaded rubber eraser and Rapidograph pens, the most important tool I keep at the drawing table is a lovely, hand-held mirror. It has proven invaluable when it comes to developing really dumb-looking people. Sometimes I don't even have to alter my facial expressions.
Q: Because great minds think alike, comics occasionally do variations on the same idea. Do you regularly check out other cartoonists' work and, if so, sometimes ask yourself either "Why didn't I think of that?" or "Hey, I already did that joke"?
A: "Great minds?" ... That's a good one! I really don't read many other cartoonists work other than what's in my local paper. Occasionally, I will spot a cartoon eerily similar to one I have done and that's when I call my high-priced Beverly Hills attorney (That's redundant, isn't it?). Honestly, when it does happen, all you can really do is shrug it off. Hey it happens.
I was recently reading through my Dad's coffee table book of New Yorker cartoons and there were some in there, particularly a few by Charles Addams, that I really wish I had thought of.
Q: What would you be doing if you weren't a professional cartoonist?
A: I will let you know just as soon as I retire. But I can tell you right now, being on "Dancing with the Stars" is out of the question.
Q: Just as fans might expect a stand-up comic to always be "on," always funny, I suspect the same is true for a "sit-down" comedian like you. Put humility aside for a moment: Does the humor you present in "Rubes" translate into you being a naturally funny guy, the life of the party, or are you a disappointingly normal fella?
A: OK, now that I've put my humility aside, first of all, in order to answer that question, we must define the word "normal." Exactly what is "normal"? Being normal sounds average and average is just so, well, average. I don't think people want to listen to an average musician or see an average movie (there are plenty of below-average movies out there, just visit Rottentomatoes.com) or read an average cartoon. So to paraphrase the hit song, "If being abnormal is wrong, then I don't want to be right."
Say, can I have my humility back now?
Q: With your "Rubes" app and animated e-cards, you appear to be pretty tech-savvy. Where do you see "Rubes" in the future as people continue to migrate more toward online and mobile platforms?
A: Why, I am so glad you noticed! Did I ever mention how I gave Steve Jobs the idea for the iPhone? He'd often call me when he needed someone tech-savvy to solve a particularly difficult problem. I'm surprised that wasn't mentioned in his biography. As far as the new "Rubes Zoo on the Go" app goes (shameless plug alert!), isn't it cool? I went out and bought an iPhone just to see it.
The digital world is providing us with more avenues to deliver humor than ever before (and boy, the world could sure use it!) and it's interesting to be a part of the cultural shift. Of course, I still adore the print medium, so I continue to support my local newspaper.
Q: If you at times find yourself wondering whether an idea is funny or perhaps too "out there" for people to get, who's your sounding board? And do most of the ideas you come up with end up in "Rubes," or do you toss away two for every one we see?
A: I do have a growing pile of random concepts that never quite gelled. To become an official "Rubes" cartoon, a drawing must pass a battery of strict tests. In addition, my wife must give it the final approval. If she says it's "sick," then I know I have a winner.
Additionally, part of the process is to just let my mind wander as I doodle away. Sometimes it sneaks out of my mental back yard unsupervised and goes to some very strange places. Some of those places — how do I put this delicately — contain material that would be considered "inappropriate for a family newspaper," which is a shame because there's some really funny stuff that will never see the light of day. I call those ideas "career enders" and they are best left undrawn.
Q: Why are cows so funny?
A: Believe it or not, cows have an incredible sense of humor. At first, they seem reserved, almost conservative, but after you hang out with them for a while, you learn that they just love to play practical jokes. Who do you think invented the "flaming bag of poo in the paper bag on the doorstep" prank? Yep, it was the very same cow that started the great Chicago fire? Unfortunately, that time, it got a bit out of hand.
Q: Cartoonists like Garry Trudeau, Cathy Guisewite, Gary Larson and Bill Watterson all complained about burnout. But, seriously, how hard is your job?
A: Gee whiz, what a bunch of whiners. You'd think that coming up with something funny day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade was actually real work. I draw cartoons, so I don't have to get a real job. Just don't tell anyone, because if the word gets out, everybody and his brother will want my pretend job.
Q: If you're having writer's block, what's your most reliable fallback?
A: My bed, both literally and figuratively. Naps are rejuvenating, that's why I believe in taking them often. It may look like I'm loafing, but in reality, I am placing myself in a richly creative zone where ideas are free to flow. At least that's the line I tell my wife.
Q: What cartoon characters did you draw growing up?
A: Do you mean growing up physically or mentally? My wife has pointed out on many occasions that my humor is often that of a 12-year-old. I say immaturity is what keeps me young, so in essence, I'm still growing, right? Hey, do you mind if I get back to you on this question? It's time for my afternoon nap.
Pat Pemberton of The Tribune in San Luis Obispo contributed questions for this report.